Within ten seconds of a David Lynch film, you know you’re watching a David Lynch film. He has a style and approach that is obviously one of the more unique of the past few generations of filmmakers. His latest film, “Inland Empire”, has been compared to “8 1/2” among other atmospheric odyssies and it’s appropriate–however, it must be pointed out that Lynch had no idea what he was doing while shooting this film. He literally made it up as he went along. He’s admitted to this.
It’s always a difficult thing to try and review a Lynch film, in my opinion. On the one hand, you’re trying to piece together something that throws out more questions than answers, and Lynch does this on purpose. He wants you to be confused, and spend time thinking and asking your own questions, talking about what you interpret with friends afterward. I call these movies “Coffeehouse Movies” (I’m pretty sure I did not coin that phrase, though) because it’s exactly the type of film you quietly walk out of, and go to a cafe afterward and talk about it over coffee or tea with your friends. Everyone’s going to have their own interpretation of what the movie’s about–everyone could be wrong or right. It doesn’t matter. It’s the process of knowing what to ask at all, I think, in Lynch’s mind.
And so, I could go ahead and describe the plot which would take about two sentences, and then basically offer my own interpretation of what Lynch was going for. But I realize that the only people that would want to read this review are David Lynch fans, because he never really seems interested in reaching a mainstream crowd. He kind of preaches to his own choir. He’s one of the few filmmakers that does that, and doesn’t bother me. In fact, I think it’s always a pleasure watching his films because I know I’m watching something that won’t be done again for a long time.
“Inland Empire” follows a few different stories in a style of vignettes, pieces of narrative, thrown together on a canvas like a Jackson Pollack painting. We begin with a scene of a man and woman speaking Polish, their heads blurred, and speaking in low voices, in a hotel room. We are then thrown into a scene that includes a laugh track with a family of Rabbits. I told you, this is David Lynch. I would expect within 5 minutes, you’re either going to be intrigued, or you’re going to turn this off. But, the film does settle somewhat into a linear “plot” once we are introduced to Nikki Grace, an actress who lives in a lavish house with her controlling, powerful husband. Grace, played by Laura Dern, is visited by an old woman who provides a bit of foreshadowing of things to come, and it’s very important to listen to what she’s saying, even if you’re completely confused as to what’s going on. She tells Nikki that she has received a part that she’s been auditioning for, but at the time, Nikki hasn’t gotten the part yet. Then, after the woman is asked to leave after acting a bit too strange for Nikki’s taste, she gets a call that she did in fact get the part.
The movie she works on, with a director named Kingsley (played by Jeremy Irons), is called “On High in Blue Tomorrows”, and her co-star is Devin (played by Justin Theroux). It is discovered that the film is actually a remake of an older film called “47” which was never finished because the two leads were murdered. One of the foreseen things the old woman told Nikki about was that there would be a murder involved with the story, something Nikki was unaware of.
Also complicating the plot is Devin and Nikki’s growing intimate relationship, something he is warned about because Nikki’s husband would kill him if he found out they’re together.
Once all of this is established, Lynch takes a hatchet to traditional storytelling, and we’re thrust into a world of portals to seemingly different dimensions, or we’re transported through a series of other films, films within films, and all of them center around Laura Dern, who turns in probably her finest performance I’ve ever seen in her career. She plays an array of characters, but we only know her as Nikki and her character, Susan. She is antagonized in some scenes by whores, then there are scenes that involve a woman who says she’ll kill someone with a screwdriver. There are scenes in which Nikki sits with a psychiatrist and talks to him about being raped–and it is as though she is now a character with the other whores, and works with them.
The subplots seem to act as a way of thickening a storyline that will never be concluded, because the tangents provide other narratives that, as I said before, are small vignettes. What it looks like Lynch is doing in this film is making a chronicle of short stories that devour the main story, like a group of appetizers consuming the entree. Much of the main story is abandoned in the last hour of the film, and we’re thrust into different realms, stories, characters, and visions. We do come back to Nikki at times, and sometimes we come back to Sue. We are in the film “On High in Blue Tomorrows” but we get the feeling that the fate of this film will be much like “47”, just as the fate of the film “Inland Empire” in general. It’s as if Lynch is channel surfing throughout this film, especially when we’re watching the Rabbits, who do actually become involved with Nikki (or Sue?) at times. The inappropriate laugh track is done on purpose, something like a distraction, intrusive. It makes no sense at all.
You could probably say that about a lot of David Lynch’s antics in his films, but again, I believe you’re missing the point if you’re expecting him to explain anything to you or give you clues to figure out his films. I’m sure re-watching this movie will allow you to explore more questions and come to some conclusions. But I believe this is a film of exploration of character, of humanity: frailty, strength, loss, deception, redemption, and death. It’s even deeper than that, I think, and I may even be missing the point myself. I have no idea. But you know, the beautiful thing about Lynch is that while his films are extremely complex and confusing, they’re also incredibly compelling. This film is 3 hours long, and after the first twenty minutes, it felt like it went by in half that time. So much is going on in each scene, so much to pay attention to. You have to think about everything after you’re done watching because if you try doing it during the film, you’ll miss something. The red light. The blue light. “The Phantom”, the Polish connections, the prostitutes, the Rabbits. They’re all part of something that Lynch may never want you to figure out.
But if you’re asking all of these questions, and talking about it, I think that’s what pleases Lynch the most. And for that, this is probably one of his finest films.
It’s hard to give the film a rating because I don’t know if it’s a “great movie”, but I will say it’s laid on my mind more than a lot of other films I’ve seen recently. And that is ultimately what Lynch is still a master of accomplishing.